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Bush's war exercise: the backpedal

Russ Baker is a journalist and essayist who writes frequently about politics.

March 17, 2004

Anniversaries are a time of remembrance. We look back at an event and recall what was. Or, in the case of the invasion of Iraq, which began one year ago, we look back at what wasn't.

What wasn't turns out to be almost anything George W. Bush and his associates said was. First, there were "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, then there weren't. First, Saddam Hussein was a "grave and growing danger," then the war was really about "regime change." First, we were going to go it alone in postwar Iraq, without UN help; now we aren't. First, the United States opposed real elections in Iraq; now it doesn't.

In an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati, Bush declared: "Tonight I want to take a few minutes to discuss a grave threat to peace and America's determination to lead the world in confronting that threat. . . . It arises directly from the Iraqi regime's own actions, its history of aggression and its drive toward an arsenal of terror."

The truth was Hussein at that time posed absolutely no threat, and the Iraqi history of aggression and its onetime possession of biochemical weapons had a lot to do with encouragement and assistance from the United States, including from people who are now senior officials of the Bush administration.

Today, more than 500 American soldiers are dead and thousands wounded, while unknowable tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead. Iraq, a mess physically, economically and psychologically, has become a cause celebre for a new generation of global terrorists.

Faced with this humiliation, the administration's Department of Corrections now claims the goal was always regime change and democracy-building abroad. In 2000, however, Bush ran largely on a plank opposed to such activism.

In any case, the emperor's newest clothes prove transparent when contrasted with an October 2002 assertion by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as reported in the Washington Times, "that America would accept the continuation of Saddam Hussein's regime if Iraq disarms." Since we now know that Iraq, under pressure from UN inspectors, had already disarmed, which part of the Powell-Rice statement makes any sense at all?

Backpedaling has become a Bush administration hallmark. In December, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared that bids on 26 prime contracts for Iraq were open only to countries that supported hostilities. But, on Feb. 11, the administration, with troop casualties mounting and the presidential election looming, announced that all countries could bid on $6 billion of Iraq contracts. "It's not necessarily a change in policy because this is how we normally do contracting," a Pentagon official said, in the Orwellian newspeak typical of this administration. "So there is no shift in policy here."

Last month, Iraqi security forces, which we were assured were well-equipped to take over local security, suddenly weren't. Following a bloody raid on the police station in Fallujah, in which 23 Iraqi policemen were killed and many dangerous prisoners released, American officials began admitting that locals would not be ready to take over by the July 1 target date. Nevertheless, U.S. forces continue to pull back, leaving Iraqi forces to go out on increasingly hazardous patrols.

Have you been wondering about those heartfelt expressions of gratitude that our invasion was supposed to trigger from liberated Iraqis? On Feb. 20, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised PBS' Jim Lehrer that our troops would be met with adulation.

"There is no question but that they would be welcomed. Go back to Afghanistan - the people were in the streets playing music, cheering, flying kites, and doing all the things that the Taliban and the al-Qaida would not let them do." Yet on Sept. 25, when quizzed by a reporter about these statements, Rumsfeld responded with a total disclaimer: "Never said that. . . . Never did. . . . I never said anything like that because I never knew what would happen and I knew I didn't know."

They didn't know what might happen from this dangerous gambit, and they knew they didn't know. Yet Bush, faced with a stinker of an economic situation, is seeking re-election today based largely on his stewardship of security matters. It is a sign of the depraved state of statesmanship in our republic that he can do so with some confidence in his chances.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc. |  Article licensing and reprint options

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